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Robert Elsie

Texts and Documents of Albanian History

 
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Webdesign J. Groß

1827
Ibrahim Manzour:
Information on Albania
and the Customs of its Inhabitants



Fragment from ‘An Albanian and a Nubian,’
by the French painter Alexandre Bida, 1851
(Searight Collection, London).


The Alsatian soldier and author, Samson Cerfbeer de Médelsheim (ca. 1777-1826), was born in Strasbourg (France) about 1777-1780. He was no doubt related to the wealthy philanthropist Herz Cerfbeer de Médelsheim (1730-1793) who promoted the Jewish community in Strasbourg. Samson Cerfbeer lived a life of adventure as a soldier of fortune, serving in various countries. He initially served as a colonel in the Napoleonic army but abandoned it, allegedly because of his anti-Bonapartist sentiments. For this he was sentenced to prison and but managed to flee to Constantinople in 1803, where he converted to Islam, married a Turkish woman and changed his name to Ibrahim Manzour. While in Ottoman service, he took part in fighting against Serbian forces in Bosnia. From 1814-1817, he was at the court of Ali Pasha Tepelena in Janina where he served as a military advisor. In later years, under his Muslim name, he published an extensive French-language history of the deposed Ali Pasha, based in good part on his personal experience, the 512-page ‘Mémoires sur la Grèce et l’Albanie pendant le gouvernement d’Ali-Pacha’ (Memoirs of Greece and Albania during the Rule of Ali Pasha), Paris 1827. He committed suicide in Paris in 1826 and, as such, did not live to see the book for which he is remembered by posterity. In the said work, Cerfbeer has left us an interesting, but by no means flattering description of the Albanians as he encountered them.

Although these memoirs relate to both Greece and Albania, both of these countries having moaned and groaned together under the iron fist of the tyrant Ali Pasha, I regard it as superfluous to give any geographical information about Greece here and a description of the customs of its inhabitants because a great many works already exist on this country, some of which leave nothing to be desired for those wanting to get to know it – in as far as one can get to know a country and its inhabitants from the distance.

The situation is different with regard to Albania because this country and its savage inhabitants are little known in civilised Europe, even though, of all the provinces that make up the Ottoman Empire, Albania is closest to Christian Europe. The perils facing any foreigner, in particular any European, travelling among the barbaric Albanians; the anarchy which continues to plague this country that barely recognises the authority of the sultan; the great difficulties caused by bad roads that are both dangerous and disagreeable and always pass through mountains and gorges; the lack of bridges over most of the rivers; the numerous bands of brigands; the tyranny and cruelty of the mass of beys who ravage the country from one end to the other; the natural inclination of most Albanians for plundering, violence, treachery and murder; the uncouthness, savagery and excessive filth of the whole nation; the difficulties caused by their repulsive, barbaric idiom which cannot be routinely learned because it has no alphabet; the lack of industry and the resulting poverty offering few opportunities for commerce – such are the reasons that have caused most curious individuals and merchants to keep their distance. Among those who travelled to Albania in the last ten years of the reign of Ali Pasha, at which time one could travel in complete security, there were few who were actually able to observe the country and its inhabitants. These inhabitants are among the most suspicious, the most mistrustful, the crudest and haughtiest people one can imagine and, in addition, they hate everything that is not Albanian. Consequently they are not at all sociable or communicative.



‘Soldier of Albania,’
by the Scottish engraver John Heaviside Clark,
1818.

Among the few things written on Albania, as far as I know, it is only the excellent work of Monsieur de Pouqueville that completely satisfies those endeavouring to learn all they want to know about this people and the country in which they live. But the detailed information provided by this scholar and able observer required several volumes (there are five). This has meant a sales price that is too high for most people wanting to buy the work. I would also like to note that I arrived at the court of Ali Pasha only a few months after the departure of Monsieur de Pouqueville such that I have been an eye witness to events that have taken place since that time. I am also able to publish details of which, given my position at the court of Ali Pasha, I alone was able to learn. I cannot hide the fact that there may be a degree of rashness on my part to dare to glean after the harvest of Monsieur de Pouqueville. For this I would beg the indulgence of the reader, and rely on the Oriental saying, “Must we who have enjoyed the radiance of the sun, show disdain for the pale light of the lamp?”

It would therefore seem to me, for all the reasons set forth above, that a brief introduction to the geographical position of Albania and to the customs of its inhabitants, would not be out of place at the very start of these memoirs.

Albania, called Arnaudlik in Turkish and Shkiperi in Albanian, is bordered to the north by Montenegro, Bosnia and Serbia; to the east by Macedonia; to the south by the districts of Janina and Arta; and to the west by the Ionian and Adriatic Seas. It stretches from north to south, from 42º 20’ to 39º 12’, and from west to east from 16º 15’ to 18º 25’ east of the Parisian meridian. I will be speaking here only of Albania proper, and not including the regions of Macedonia and Greece that were conquered by Ali Pasha and which I will mention below when referring to the population. I therefore return now to Albania. […]

The main towns of Albania that were not conquered by Ali Pasha are situated in the northern part of the country. These are Shkodra (Scutari), Durrës [Durazzo], Ulqin/Ulcinj [Dulcigno], Bar [Antivari], Kruja [Croya], Upper Dibra and Lower Dibra. He rules over Tirana [Tiranna] which he seized during my stay with him, Elbasan [Elbassan], Berat [Berath], Vlora [Avlôna], Dukat [Dukâtez], Këlcyra [Klissura], Tepelena [Tepeleni] which is the birthplace of Ali Pasha, Përmet [Premitti], Leskovik [Lexôviko], Konitsa [Konitza], Gjirokastra [Argyro-Castro], Libohova [Libokhovo] which is the place of residence of Ali Pasha’s sister, Delvina [Delvino], Filat/Filiates [Filâtez], Konispol, Paramithia, Margariti, and Parga that the English sold to him while I was with him.



‘An Albanian Soldier,’
by the English engraver William Dadley,
1802

Albania cannot be considered a rich country with regard to what is produced on its territory. Its main products are: maize, barley, red rice eaten in the country, excellent powder tobacco much sought after throughout Turkey and even in Syria and Egypt, flax, hemp and wood for shipbuilding. In the southern part of the country, near the coast, they grow oranges, lemons, pomegranates and delicious figs and raisins. As the soil in the rest of the country is better suited for raising sheep and goats, there are innumerable herds there. Their fleeces are used for the most part in the country itself. What is left over is exported profitably by the inhabitants. The same can be said of the hides of sheep and goats. The port that is most utilized for exports is that of Vlora, situated between 39º and 40º in latitude. Along the coast, the sea provides coral, and it would seem that there is a lucrative supply of it because Neapolitan coral fishers come over every year to conclude an agreement with Ali Pasha, according to which they pay sixty thousand francs for exclusive rights. They also give him the right to choose, for free, fifty pieces of coral as he desires. […]

There are several villages in Albania that are inhabited by foreigners, who are somewhat less savage than the natives. Each of these villages is inhabited by only one ethnic group. For instance, one finds villages of Illyrians, Serbs, Vlachs, Bulgarians, Greeks and Turks. Each of these colonies conserves its own language and even retains something of its native costumes and primitive customs. The men in these villages normally learn Albanian because they have contacts and need it for trade. But the women only speak their mother tongue according to the country from which the colony arrived. Although I have not spent much time in this country studying the physiognomy of these peoples, I can easily distinguish an Illyrian, a Bulgarian, a Vlach or a Greek from a pure Albanian because the latter have particular physical characteristics. Their heads are small and form an oval shape pulled in towards the bottom which does not concur well with our idea of beauty. Their foreheads are narrow and flat, their eyebrows thin and well-defined, their small eyes are blue or grey and emit a piercing glance. Their noses are slender and slightly aquiline, their lips are thin, their chins are pointed and their cheeks are prominent. Their hair is chestnut brown or blond. From childhood on, their bellies are contracted with ligaments and belts, a custom which they adhere to until they die. The result is that the flesh bulges out over the stomach. This is hideous when one sees them in the hamams [Turkish baths] where they only wear a peshetimal, a towel down to the knees that is tied around the waist. The gait of the Albanians, in particular of those who regard themselves as important, is ridiculous. They hold the upper half of their bodies to one side and push their lowers backs out. By doing this continually, it becomes natural to them and, when they walk, they believe themselves to be quite grand, wiggling their hips to the right and to the left with every step they take. The higher the person is in status and dignity, the more he walks like this. Those of the highest rank, such as Mukhtar Pasha who is the elder son of Ali Pasha, Omer Bey Vrioni who has since been made a pasha and commands an army corps fighting against Greek insurgents, and Taher Abas who is Ali Pasha’s chief of police, exhibited the same contortions on horseback.

The Albanian nation is divided into four distinct tribes of which each is subdivided into fares, an Arab word signifying ‘section, separation.’ The singular of the word is fara. I will only deal here with these four main tribes.

The Ghegs

The Ghegs live in the northernmost part of Albania, in the districts of Scutari (Shkodra), Ulqin, Durrës, Elbasan, Tirana, Kruja and Dibra. The members of this tribe are less dirty than the rest of the Albanians. They differ from the rest of the country in the form and colour of their clothing, too, which, with a very few exceptions, is always crimson coloured. […]



‘Albanians,’
by the Italian artist Filippo Delpino,
1828

The Ghegs are the hardiest of the Albanians and make good horsemen and excellent foot soldiers, whereas the other Albanians are only good as foot soldiers. The members of this tribe are exceptionally zealous Sunni Muslims, very fierce and cruel. They all react immediately to issues involving their honour. They are infinitely more sociable and less crude than the rest of the nation. The Turks honour them by calling them the Osmanlis of Albania. They intensely dislike the other tribes. Among the Ghegs, there are many Christians of Roman Catholic rite who call themselves Latins and who are so called by the Muslims. They are not easily offended as they have learned to gain the respect of the Muslims by their honest, loyal and peaceful behaviour. These values have led to respect for their peaceful ways. The district of Kruja that is subordinate to the Pasha of Shkodra (Scutari) is inhabited almost entirely by Latin Christians, who are otherwise Albanian in language and customs. They only call themselves Latins because of their religion that recognises the Pope in Rome. One must do justice to them. They lack most of the faults that make the Albanians one of the most detested peoples on earth. The Latins or Mirdita (this is another name they go by willingly) are, generally, respectable people who mind their own business, i.e. their commerce and the cultivation of their land. They know how to repulse an attack, but are never themselves the aggressors. They are simple people who are pious, yet without the ridiculous superstitions with which the Schismatic [Orthodox] adherents of the Greek faith disfigure Christianity. The Latins or Mirdita are supportive of one another such that, if the father of a family suffers a misfortune that threatens his existence, his co-believers come to his aid. They bear arms to defend their land. The Muslims admit them willingly into their ranks because they know that they can rely on them and that the latter are never treacherous. Ali Pasha who had a corps of Gheg cavalrymen in his pay, also had Latins in a separate corps who were commanded by their religious leaders, under the orders of the overall Gheg commander. This corps of Latins was unquestionably the best corps in Ali Pasha’s army. I took it upon myself to observe their behaviour in various situations and I always found them to be honorable, loyal and humane.

One encounters a great number of rich merchants among the Ghegs, both Muslim and Latin, who have very extensive trade relations. Merchants of this nation are always to be found in Trieste, Venice and even in Leghorn, and I have been assured that they conduct their commercial operations with great integrity. The trips that they take to the civilised part of Europe, without at all weakening the religious fanaticism of the Muslims or diminishing their pride, and without corrupting the simple morals of the Latins or sapping the affection of both groups for their country, have served to put something of a polish on their natural roughness. They have learned to speak a bit of Italian and have brought back some social ideas, particularly the Latins who, while in Italy, have more contact with trading houses and often with religious orders. There are some convents in the districts of Kruja and Orosh with many priests, and I can assure the reader that they conduct themselves in an edifying and exemplary fashion. All the members of the clergy, secular and regular, live off the fruits of their own physical labour and give what is left over from their activity and hard work to the poor. Some Italian missionaries of the Order of Saint Francis reach the Mirdita from time to time and, to be truthful, I must say that from what I have heard, these clergymen are of irreproachable and praiseworthy behaviour. Their work helps to mitigate the rustic customs of the Mirdita.

Ghegeria is what the Albanians call all the various districts inhabited by Ghegs and under the government of the Pasha of Shkodra (Scutari), with the exception of the district of Elbasan that obeyed Ali Pasha.

The Tosks

The Tosks [Toskas], whose country consists of Mallakastra [Malacastra], Berat, Myzeqeja [Mosakia], Përmet, Tepelena, Gjirokastra and Këlcyra, occupy central Albania and live to the south of the Ghegs. The Albanians call this country Toskeria [Toscari]. It is inhabited by the nastiest and most perfidious of the Albanians. They are less brave and more boastful. Their tribe is the most numerous and it occupies as much territory as that of the Ghegs, but they are of lesser quality in everything. They are inferior to the Ghegs in terms of morals, physical force and civilisation.



‘An Albanian,’
by the French painter
Louis-François-Sébastien Fauvel, 1787
(private collection, Paris)

A large number of the Muslim Tosks are followers of Ali, the son-in-law of Mohammed, as are the Persians. This sect, called Shia or Alevite, is regarded as heretical by Muslims of the sect called Sunni, who make up all the Muslims of European Turkey and, in general, of the Ottoman Empire. The reigning family is therefore obliged to follow its teachings. The Albanians who follow Ali are looked upon with horror and disgust by all the Sunni Muslims who, in turn, are detested by the Alevites who call them Muawiyah [moavia] because of the caliph of that name who reigned in Damascus and who successfully opposed the son-in-law of the Prophet. I have heard Tosks in the streets of Janina giving bread to dogs in the bazaar and calling them Muawiyah. The members of this Tosk sect hold these dervishes of lax dogma in great esteem, and they are all incorporated into one or other of the various orders of these wandering dervishes. I could expand upon this subject substantially by adding information about the dogma and morals of these dervishes, some of whom astound one with their audacity and temerity. I got to know them well when I joined the dervish order of the Rufai in 1817 out of curiosity. The ulema, i.e. the Muslim priests and legal experts, are detested by the Alevites. Mukhtar Pasha, the elder son of Ali Pasha, has openly declared himself to be a follower of this sect, and there is good reason to suspect that his father followed the same tenets, although he never admitted this publicly for political reasons. Moreover, Ali Pasha was born and raised in Tepelena, of the Tosk tribe. It would therefore be unusual for him not to have imbibed the dangerous teachings spread by these dervishes who corrupt public morals.

The Christian Tosks who are almost equal in number to the Muslims, are followers of the Greek Church and are known as Schismatics. They are similar to their Greek co-believers in fanaticism and ridiculous superstition, but their morals are no better for all. Indeed, they are the nastiest and most villainous inhabitants of the whole planet. They most certainly surpass their Muslim compatriots in infamy and turpitude. Anyone like me who has taken time to observe them, will come to the conclusion that their religion serves no purpose whatsoever other than to spread hatred of all those who do not share their beliefs, and to forbid them from eating meat on Wednesdays and Fridays, and on their long and numerous fasting days. Aside from this, they have no virtues at all, and no qualities that could compensate for all the failings and vices in their hideous character.

The land of the Tosks is worthy of such a detestable people. The soil is quite barren, full of rocky hills and high mountains that are bare and sterile. There is not enough to feed the inhabitants who are obliged to get part of their maize, which is their staple diet, from neighbouring districts. Because of the lack of agriculture, they turn to raising sheep and goats whose fleeces they use for clothing and whose milk products they consume. Tobacco grows quite successfully in some part of Toskeria. This and wool from their flocks are the only products the country has to offer for export.

The Labs

The Labs [Lapes] live in a region called Laberia, a mountainous territory situated between Toskeria to the north and east, Chameria to the south, and the Adriatic Sea to the west. The members of this tribe are the dirtiest and crudest of all the Albanian nation, and this is no exaggeration. Their ignorance surpasses all imagination. Those among them who regard themselves as Muslims know only that they are Turkco (Turks). They do not even know the word Muslim, nor do they know anything about the Islamic faith that they even distort when they pronounce the word. Those who claim to be Christians call themselves giaour (from the Turkish word gavur ‘infidel’). They make the sign of the cross with three fingers, from right to left, as is done in Greek Schismatic churches. This is all that these savage and beastly mountain men know of their religions, to which they are not particularly attached. It often happens that families and, indeed, whole villages, convert to Islam solely to rid themselves of the capitation tax called haraç that non-Muslims are forced to pay, even though the sum involved is quite modest, being three and a half piasters for the poor class. This is the equivalent of two francs and sixty-two centimes annually for adult men. Women and children are exempt. In 1818, while I was in Janina, Ali Pasha ordered the inhabitants of a Christian village in Laberia to convert to Islam. I do not know the reason why the tyrant did this in contrast to their convictions, but I do know that none of them, including their priest, opposed the order. Indeed none of them minded being circumcised. Ali Pasha sent them an imam (Muslim priest) from Janina to teach them Islam and, at the house of Mehmed Efendi, the pasha’s steward, where I was staying, I was told that the son of the one-time priest and the two sons of the mayor of the village had been carried off to learn about the Muslim religion and to serve as hostages in order to guarantee the sincerity of the conversion of their fathers. The other children of that village were distributed among the main Muslim families of Janina for the same purpose.



‘An Albanian fighter,’
by the French painter Dominique Louis Papety,
1846 (private collection, France)

One day, I spoke to a Lab who was born a Christian and who had converted to Islam with all of his family. As the reason for his conversion, he told me that he had been suffering difficulties over the last few years – frost, epizootic diseases, illness and fines, etc. He had prayed to Jesus, to his mother, to Saint Nicholas and to various other saints, but to no avail. He and his family decided it was time to invoke the intercession of Mohammed, and since that time, he has been relieved of all the difficulties. They thus all decided to put themselves under his protection and converted to that religion. This had the added advantage that he did not need to spend his money buying little candles that the Christian saints demanded and that were never big enough for them. As a poor man, he could not afford the fine candles they required. But Mohammed, on the other hand, protected him free of charge. It was with the most serious and intimate conviction that this Lab naively revealed these reasons to me. I have referred to them here simply to show the ignorance in which these people wallow, at the very gates of civilised Europe.

The Labs are universally despised, even by other Albanians. They are too simple-minded to be as evil as the other tribes, but their excessive coarseness and their disgusting filth make them a bother. They often commit murder and rape out of simple stupidity, as the other Albanians do out of spite or vice. Ali Pasha has arrested and massacred hundreds of them because they are all thieves, due both to natural impulses they cannot resist and to extreme poverty. But this has not helped to improve these beasts in human form, even though there are hardly any Lab families without members who have been put to death for such crimes on the terrible orders of Ali Pasha. I have been told that Labs even steal among the crowds that have gathered to witness the execution of their close relatives or brothers. They cannot resist stealing, which they do for the basest of motives.

The word Lab is used as an insult by all Albanians who are not of this tribe. They themselves are insensitive to such insults and don’t care, as long as they are not beaten up and their wives are not seduced. Marriages between Muslims and Christians are very frequent in this tribe. That is, Muslim men marry Christian women but it is not allowed for a Christian man to marry a Muslim woman.

The Chams

The Chams live in the south-southwestern part of Albania. Their land is called Chameria. It borders to the north and northwest on the territory of the Labs, to the east on the district of Janina, the south on the district of Arta, and to the west on the sea. In this region there is an enclave called Suli, inhabited by Suliots who are all Christians, but not Greeks. They are Albanians in language, customs and origin. They have a reputation for bravery and misfortune. The Cham tribe is made up of very zealous Muslims of the Sunni sect, and a dervish would risk his life in Chameria. The men here are savage, extremely fanatic, and interested only in their independence and freedom. They are energetic in character, but tend to anarchy and this is what they understand by freedom. With great patience, they put up with the yoke of Ali Pasha who treated them with more consideration than he did the Tosks and Labs. Their tribe provides many ulema (Muslim priests and legal experts). The Chams are generally tall, and have mostly black hair. […]

General notions on the Albanians

The Albanians believe that they are descended from an Arab tribe called Arnabud that was expelled from Arabia during the civil war in that country that broke out because of Ali, the son-in-law of Mohammed. They base this assertion on the Turkish name for their nation, Arnaud. But this is not true since the name the Albanians give to their own language is Shkip. What is more, their physique, their language, and their customs and habits have nothing to do with the peoples of Arabia. It is possible that the Albanians claim such origin because of their national pride, believing like Muslims from all countries that Arabia is the noblest of all lands since the Prophet, his disciples, the caliphs and all the evliya (Muslim saints) were Arabs.



‘Portrait of the Gheg chief, Abdullah Bey,’
by the English painter and poet Edward Lear,
Shkodra, 5 October 1848
(Harvard University).

Polygamy is rarely practised by Albanian Muslims because their poverty does not enable them to support several women. The one wife they marry is, however, not to be envied. Among the Muslims and among the Christians, as among all savage peoples, all the hard work and all the exhausting labour at home and in the fields, is done by these poor creatures. They are, nonetheless, attractive, with delicate features and voluptuous glances, but the work at home and in the fields causes their charms to fade at an early age. They wear embroidered blouses of silk or wool, in blue or red, that have a pleasant appearance. Their fez (red headpiece) is adorned with para (small Turkish coins), and with other coins of silver or gold if they have the means. Aside from this, they are just as filthy as the men, and all of them, of both sexes, emit a very unpleasant smell, even their high-standing leaders. This is because they rarely change their clothes. The poor people wear their clothes until they drop off. As the cloth is thick, however, this happens only every two or three years. Their headpieces, that were originally red, finish by turning into a chestnut brown hue due to sweat and dirt, but what makes them smell particularly bad is the coat they call a kepe. This coat, the cloth of which is made by the women, is a woollen garment with long goat hair on the inside. They come in white, brown and black, depending on the original colour of the fleece. The art of dying clothes is unknown to them. This kepe serves as a coat in the daytime and as a bedcover at night. Otherwise, they sleep in their clothes, taking off only their shoes and weapons. Since they sit down on the ground wherever they stop for a chat, the coat drags in the mud, through manure and is often on the floor because they use it to sit on. As it hangs loosely over their shoulders, it falls off at the slightest movement. This garment is as ugly as it is heavy and inconvenient. […]

The Albanians shave their heads as do other Orientals, but with the difference that they leave a shock of hair at the back that is never cut. The whole length of it flatters in the wind. It is rare to see an Albanian with a beard. Only the Gheg and Cham ulema, and those who have come back from a pilgrimage to Mecca wear a goatee. But moustaches are widespread and obligatory, as throughout the Orient. Among the Tosks, most of the dervishes are without beards, which causes great scandal among dervishes in the rest of Turkey. As to the Labs, there are no ulema, no dervishes and no hajjis (pilgrims to Mecca).

The homes are badly built and badly furnished. One cannot stand to be in them in the winter because of the smoke, which is made all the worse because they do not bother to stalk up on dry wood in the summer. They cut the wood simply as they need it. Consequently, it is green when they throw it into the fire. Since they have no chimneys, the smoke can only escape through cracks in the walls that are never plastered over or through the holes in the roof. The windows have no glass and are shut from within by shutters. In the winter, they use a piece of paper or an old rag to plug the opening. This country was in a perpetual state of anarchy until Ali Pasha gradually managed to get a grip on it and subject them to his power. The way they build their houses is no different from their barbaric customs. The houses are not built next to one another as in other countries. Each house is constructed at the greatest possible distance from the neighbours and is built, as far as possible, on an elevation overlooking the surroundings so that it can be protected with a rifle. Each house is a type of fortress or stronghold with loopholes that serve as windows. Most of the time, they are plugged up and are only opened during battle. The entrance to these houses is situated twelve or fifteen feet about the ground and one can only enter by means of a ladder that is pulled up into the house at night, and even during the daytime if there is an armed conflict. Some houses have crenellated tops, even some of the minarets of the mosques are crenellated. All the villages (if one can use this term for such scattered settlements that have no real streets) and the towns on the heights are built with an eye to defence.

The wretched and filthy homes of the Albanians swarm with vermin of all kind. To put it briefly, one is tormented by all kind of annoyance without anything to show for it. I regarded it as pure torture being invited to stay with people during my service. In the wintertime, I was in need of shelter because of the weather, but in the summer, I always preferred camping outdoors, under the trees and away from human settlements.

The Albanians eat very badly and have no variety in their meals, which consist of maize, notably kurumane, and milk products. Their cheeses taste awful and are too salty. They consume a lot of leeks, garlic and onions. Only on special occasions do they allow themselves the privilege of eating meat, which always consists of a roasted goat or a roasted sheep, served as one piece on the table. They all tear off bits of meat with their filthy fingers. They have neither knives, nor forks, nor plates, nor bowls. They call this roast koche and this is the most sumptuous meal they know, in particular when they add flour and eggs to butter. In their misery, they do not even know the potato. This is due to their obstinate rejection of anything new. I had some potatoes brought over from Corfu for myself and distributed them among members of the various tribes. After letting them taste the potatoes and after convincing them of what good food they made, I explained to them the wide variety of usages of potatoes in cooking. I also gave them specific instructions on how to plant and grow them. They promised, indeed they swore that they would plant the potatoes and take care of them, but nothing came of it. Muslims and Christians, Ghegs, Tosks, Laps and Chams, none of them really accepted the idea. Some of those to whom I gave potatoes and who seemed to be less savage than the rest excused themselves when I complained, saying that Albanians should not debase themselves by eating like the Franks (Europeans), especially by eating food that had been hiding in the earth, as if their leeks and onions grew on trees!

The Albanians do not eat much when at home or when they do so outdoors at their own expense. Things change, however, when they are eating at someone else’s table. There they show sudden and surprising voracity, in particular for meat with which they stuff their bellies. They are very reserved with regard to beverages. Although all the Muslims, Tosks and Labs, will drink wine and spirits, as do all the Christians in Albania, it is extremely rare to see someone drunk. This is a very good thing, given how fierce and murderous they are by nature and given that all the men, even the boys, carry weapons in their belts. They never leave their arms and, when they sleep, they keep them at the heads or at their sides. There are even those who sleep with their weapons in their belts. […]

The Albanians regard themselves as the first nation of the world and despise both the Turks and the Europeans. One of their favourite pastimes is to mistreat, deceive or insult foreigners who visit their country. They have songs called bukovalas that always deal with the heroic exploits of the person singing or of their chieftains. It is all a bunch of nonsense and bragging, a recital of cruelty, perfidy and injustice in which they glorify themselves and exaggerate in their songs that are monotonous to the point of driving you to sleep. They only have one melody for all of their songs, the refrain of which, after each couplet, goes, “iô, ôh, ôh,” which they draw out as long as they can until the lack of breath forces them to stop. Should anyone wish to note the melody down (I say melody in the singular because they only have one), he would only need five notes, including a sharp, i.e. the melody is in C major or A minor, and the final “iô, ôh, ôh” is always in G major. Their way of singing is to shout at the top of their voices, and, quite often, a number of them will gather to sit in a circle and sing in unison, as loud as their lungs permit. It is dreadful music. They pluck at a primitive type of guitar, sometimes made of wood, sometimes consisting of half of an emptied gourd upon which they stretch one or more strings. One can expect no harmony from it because the instrument is just as barbaric as the musicians.

The Albanians are excellent hikers and can scale hills and mountains with great ease, carrying their rifles over their shoulders. They can fire accurately with this weapon but need several minutes to load it and to take aim. They are totally undisciplined and make war with trickery rather than with courage. They would seem born for ambushes in the mountains, but rarely dare to fight in the open country where they do not hold up for long. Their cupidity and the impossibility of making money in their wretched country have caused them to leave it and seek their fortunes abroad in the service of all the pashas of the Ottoman Empire. However, it is impossible to count on them because they abandon their officers whenever they are discontent, at the moment least expected, i.e. just when an expedition has set out or on the eve of a battle. But the pashas are content to have them just as they are, because they cost much less than Turkish troops, both in terms of wages and food.

Love of money is the greatest passion of the Albanians, for whom every means is justifiable for making it. They have a common saying, “Anyone who does not know how to steal from others, is not worthy of keeping his own property.” Money-making and stealing are quite synonymous among them.

Need and cupidity motivate a good number of Albanians to move to Constantinople and the other large cities of European Turkey, where they exercise the professions of butcher, bath attendant, mason, and tripe seller for cats. Throughout their time abroad, they live in great deprivation and stinginess and, as soon as they have a few hundred francs in their belts, they return home to live a life of leisure and idleness, with no other thought in mind than going out hunting, i.e. lying in wait for some misfortunate traveller to kill him treacherously and steal his belongings, or to assassinate one of their enemies by surprise.

Their more peaceful pastimes are: smoking their pipes, singing at the top of their voices, sleeping in the sun, searching for lice of all kinds that swarm over their bodies and in their clothes. […]

The Albanian language has nothing in common with Turkish or Greek, although there are words of these two languages that have entered it, mostly Turkish. In the Gheg variant there is not a single Greek word. In general, very few foreign words have been taken over. Albanian is pronounced nasally, with a long drawn-out ‘a’ that is quite disagreeable to the foreign ear. For example, they pronounce pasha as pânshâ and Ali as Anli. All the diphthongs of French exist in Albanian, even the French ‘u.’ There are various dialects in this barbaric language, but they are so different from one another that the Ghegs in the far north and the Chams in the far south can hardly understand one another.

The Albanian language has no alphabet. The Muslims write it in Turkish [i.e. Arabic] script and the Christians in Greek script. There are some regions of the country where one can find only one or two Muslim priests and just as few Christians who know how to write a letter, with the exception of the Muslim Chams where many men have embarked upon careers as ulema (ecclesiastical and judiciary). Among the Labs there is no one who can read or write.

In all of the Albanian dialects, this language is called Shkip, the country is called Shkiperi and the people are called Shkipetar.

In this language there are a good number of French and Latin words and an even greater number of words with Latin or French etymologies.


[Extract from: Ibrahim Manzour Efendi, Mémoires sur la Grèce et l’Albanie pendant le government d’Ali-Pacha (Paris: Paul Ledoux, 1827), pp. i–xxxvii. Translated from the French by Robert Elsie.]

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